With next week’s Budget expected to raise taxes on super strength drinks, Jeremy Dunning speaks to people who have experienced the damage they cause first-hand
It has been four years since Marion Albrecht last touched alcohol.
This followed about 30 years of boozing and the experience has left her with cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis C, and a hiatus hernia.
At her worst the 48-year-old was sleeping rough, drinking an average of 10 cans of super strength lager and cider “and anything else people could bring me”. This included a period of using heroin.
However she survived. Many of her friends did not.
She says: “I’ve got more dead friends than living friends and I think that goes for most people who’ve lived like that.”
What strikes her now is the ease with which she became addicted to the super strength lagers, which commonly refers to beers that have an alcohol content of 9% or higher.
She says: “If you want to get heroin, it’s a hassle because you’ve got to wait for kids in parks to come up to you and sell it, but in supermarkets [super strength lagers are] in your face.”
Now she has her own flat and helps out with voluntary work with homeless agency Thames Reach. Ultimately she wants to see these drinks either banned or made more expensive. While the former option is unlikely, next week’s Budget is expected to raise taxes on these drinks, in line with Conservative Party policy (see box).
She says: “People can’t work because they drink this stuff. The amount of damage to a person is ridiculous. It’s so easy to get out of control.”
The damage can include organic brain damage (Korsakoff’s syndrome) and liver damage.
Thames Reach, which has been campaigning for a tax hike on super strength lagers and ciders for many years, has found evidence that people as young as 35 have died from problems related to consuming these drinks.
These individuals are commonly referred to as “the young olds”, who, though in their thirties and forties, have the physical health of someone over retirement age.
Tony Waters, manager of the Thames Reach hostel Graham House, in Vauxhall, south London, says that before super strength drinks had taken a hold in the 1980s it was unusual for street drinkers to die before the age of 60.
Now many would be lucky to reach the age of 50, he adds. Survivors are often doubly incontinent and suffer from memory loss and liver damage.
Thames Reach’s campaign focuses on the fact that a single 500ml can of 9% super strength lager contains four and a half units of alcohol, which exceeds the government’s daily recommended limit of two to three units for women and three to four for men. Some of these drinks cost as little as 69p per can.
It cites research by the University of Sheffield, which found a causal link between increasing price and decreasing consumption and improved health outcomes.
Chief executive Jeremy Swain says: “The evidence across the piece shows if you change price, you change behaviour. There’s no research to dispute that. I think we need to get on with it.
“Not only does the research show people change their behaviour, it shows there is a bigger impact on the numbers of addicts. What it leads to is something less damaging.”
The “less damaging” are drinks at 3% to 5%, which should modify behaviour and improve health and “gives us some time” to use counselling to help drinkers control their addictions.
He has written recently to prime minister David Cameron reminding him of a speech he made in March, which backed tax hikes on super strength ciders.
Some of Cameron’s ideas came via Policy Exchange, widely regarded as his favourite think-tank, which has advocated a restructuring of the alcohol duty regime in order to promote the production, and consumption, of lower alcohol products.
In its paper, Hitting the bottle: Minimising the harms from alcohol misuse, Policy Exchange said that duty should be cut on beer and cider where the alcoholic strength is less than, or equal to, two units per pint but should be raised where the alcoholic strength exceeds 2.5 units per pint.
It also recommended the introduction of a public health duty escalator where future alcohol duty rates increase by more than inflation with a specific aim of reducing the number of harmful drinkers.
Policy Exchange’s Henry Featherstone, who co-wrote the report, says: “You could target specific problem drinks with extra bands to the duty regime for strong cider and strong beer.e_SDRq
Despite the Conservatives’ support for raising taxes on super strength drinks, health secretary Andrew Lansley recently signalled he did not favour minimum pricing on alcohol, effectively rejecting a recommendation from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to introduce such a regime.
Meanwhile, the drinks industry has disputed the use of taxation and price control as an effective means to deal with alcohol disorder, misuse and harm.
The Portman Group, which represents the UK’s leading drinks producers on societal issues surrounding alcohol, has said it believed that an “educate and prevent” approach is more effective than blanket controls in tackling alcohol misuse.
Swain, however, is hopeful of victory. “We feel we could win this one. The evidence stacks up,” he says.
Ill health, lost family: the heavy toll of alcoholism
Kevin Munro, 42, and his father Brian, 61, lived rough in Tooting Crematorium for seven-and-a-half years. Kevin cannot walk unaided without crutches, though has now voluntarily agreed to restrict his alcohol intake. Brian has brain damage from his abuse of alcohol.
Kevin says: “I was 17 when my mum died, aged 33 on Valentine’s Day. I drank anything that could get me out of my head.”
Bill Duncan, 49, has restricted himself to three cans of super strength alcohol a day for the past six months. “Before I came to Graham House, I was drinking 10 to 12 cans a day. Thames Reach has been very good and kept me occupied.”
George Totten, 55, has two daughters, both of whom were taken away when they were young. He has recently met up with one, who has her own child, but has no idea where the second is.
Peter Jones, 47, was dry for most of last year but has slipped back into alcoholism. He says: “The reason I stopped was because I was vomiting blood by the pint. I got really scared.”
‘I’ve got to keep myself busy because it would be easy for me to fall back’
Dennis Rogers used to drink anything and everything but the super strength lagers were different.
He says: “I’d always been a heavy drinker and once I came across the super strength lagers it helped me forget all the past. I was quite prepared to drink myself to death.”
He eventually found himself drinking 15 cans a day and became part of a “drinking school” of fellow rough sleepers and alcoholics in the 1990s.
If he did not have a drink or the money for one, one of the others would be able to provide him with one until he was able to return the favour.
He liked to start the day with a can of super-strength, though he was a “greedy alcoholic” and did not always have a stash for the morning.
Often he would go to the local shop to get the cans on account.
“I was offered a hostel many times but I wasn’t prepared to pay the service charge because to me that was an amount of cans. Eventually my health deteriorated and I got pleurisy and pneumonia.”
But after being stabbed in the lung in September 2002, he was taken into hospital and was then persuaded by his key worker to go into rehab. Now aged 50, he does voluntary work for homeless charities including outreach work for Thames Reach.
He says: “I’ve got to keep myself busy because it would be easy for me to fall back.”
Of super strength lagers, he says: “Personally I’d ban them. There’s no need for them. I’ve seen the damage of what they can do to people.”
Tories back drink tax hike
In a speech last October, then shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said a future Conservative government would introduce big tax increases in the tax on super strength alcohol. The Conservatives’ election manifesto said the party would raise taxes on “those drinks linked to anti-social behaviour”.
The issue also made it into the coalition’s programme for government, which said that alcohol taxation and pricing would be reviewed to ensure it tackles binge drinking without unfairly penalising responsible drinkers.
This article is published in the 17 June issue of Community Care magazine under the heading The high price of cheap lagers